Lee Yeong ae, Min-sik Choi
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
|After several months on the film festival circuit, "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" opens in New York and L.A. today, April 28th, at the same time it's playing during the Indianapolis International Film Festival. The film opens nationwide on May 12th.
"Lady Vengeance" is the third film, following the remarkable "Oldboy" and "Sympathy Vengeance," in a revenge trilogy from Korean director Chan-Wook Park.
"Lady Vengeance" is the story of Geum-ja Lee (Lee-Yeong ae), a young woman released from prison after 13 years following her confession for the kidnapping and murder of a young boy. Wrongly imprisoned, Geum-ja has spent nearly all her time incarcerated planning revenge on Mr. Baek (Min-sik Choi), a school teacher largely responsible for her incarceration. Her incarceration not only cost her 13 years of freedom, but she was forced to give up custody of her daughter.
Upon release, Geum-ja enlists the aid of her previous inmates, who had come to recognize her for her kindness and caring while incarcerated and were all too willing to assist in her revenge.
It is, sadly, the first half of "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" that results in the film's receiving a grade of B-. Too often in the first half of the film, we are provided with too much narrative exposition and cinematography that often feels forcibly photogenic. There is also a scene early in the film in which, during a fantasy scene, the alleged "outdoor" scenery is undoubtedly a soundstage of the most obvious variety.
This is not to take anything away from the performance of Lee-Yeong ae, who does a nice job portraying a woman who is both compassionate yet capable of vengeful killings. While she is less convincing in the film's maternal moments, her performance is generally convincing and effective.
Likewise, Choi's performance as the frighteningly disturbed Mr. Baek is chilling in its normalcy.
It seems like Park films are either "love it" or "hate it" films. There will be, undoubtedly, viewers who will be enchanted by the film's visual imagery, intrigued by the script's spiritual undertones, and who will laugh with delight at the film's extremely dark comedy.
In reality, I understand all these points.
Quite often, the film is beautiful to behold. The film's spiritual undertones and exploration of the ethics of revenge is interesting and, quite honestly, a tad more intellectual than the Tarantino approach to such a topic. The film's dark comedy, especially in the latter third of the film, is pointed, well-timed and, yes, funny...yet, I can't deny that more than once I found myself thinking of "Rocky Horror Picture Show" in the midst of it all.
Ultimately, however, I'm not a "love it" or "hate it" person for Park films (though I've only seen "Old Boy," which I loved). I do, however, consider myself a discerning film-goer and I found much to not like about "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance."
I suppose it mostly comes down to the film feeling like Park typically chooses style over substance. Even when the dialogue begins to discuss deep spiritual issues, somehow Park can't allow himself to finish the scene without some strong stylistic statement that never enhances the plotline or action of the film.
My other problem with "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" is that we are supposed to sympathize with Geum-ja. Yet, Geum-ja has made plenty of poor choices herself. While she's undoubtedly been wronged, by the time she gets around to exacting revenge virtually everyone in her life is paying the price for it.
The film is saved from utter mediocrity by the actual scenes of revenge. While random acts of violence have seldom piqued my interested on film, Park shoots these scenes masterfully with an uneasy mix of black comedy, suspense, action and rage. One scene, in particular, involving the parents of murdered children is heartbreakingly raw and powerful. These series of scenes themselves would have made for a masterful film. Unfortunately, shortly after revenge is exacted we find ourselves back in the same stylistic rut.
I will offer one slight warning that the film features relatively brief scenes of violence towards children. Those who are sensitive to this sort of thing would be advised to avoid the film and/or not view the film alone.
"Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" settles for being a merely decent flick instead of the brilliant film it was trying to be. With a little more substance over style and stronger production design, even I would have had sympathy for "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance."
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic